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  • Writer's pictureKathryn Watson

3 Reasons Why Seniors Refuse To Bathe

When an adult child discovers that a parent is refusing to take a bath, they are often embarrassed, disgusted and confused.

senior business man

“This is not who my mother is!” Timothy told me. “Appearances are everything to her. Why would she refuse to take a bath?

The staff at the assisted living facility where she lived tried everything to coerce her into taking a bath. They tried reasoning with her. Telling her all if the reasons she needed to take a bath. They tried embarrassing her, telling her she smelled and it was disgusting not to bathe. Nothing seemed to work.

So they brought in her son Timothy. Timothy tried all of the same things the staff did. He gave mom a long talking to. And he insisted that she behave and let the staff give her a bath. He asked her why she didn’t want to take a bath put was met with stony silence.

Everyone was frustrated.

So, Timothy's wife Sarah, stepped in to see if she could figure out what the problem could possibly be that Sue was refusing to take a bath. This was not like Sue. Sarah and Timothy took her every week to get her hair and nails done. She had beautiful clothes and always put on makeup even if she was not going anywhere. Appearances were everything to Sue.

"She is a bit of a diva." Sarah said

So Sarah began to probe. “I knew there had to be a good reason and I needed to be a good detective to discover what the problem was.” Talking to the staff, she asked them to describe exactly what happened when they tried to give Sue a bath. I want to know what she says she told the staff.

Suddenly The Problem Became Crystal Clear to Sarah

“She starts hollering” Claire said. “You are going to mess my hair. I spent a lot of money on getting my hair done and you are going to ruin it.”

Sarah asked Claire if they covered Sue’s hair with a shower cap. No, she replied, we wash all of the resident’s hair.

There was the problem! Sue got her hair fixed on Monday, a once a week ritual that should last for a week and the staff insisted on washing out her beautiful curls on Tuesday. I would have been angry also!

Trouble Expressing What Their Needs Are

Dementia patients often cannot express what is wrong with them. As their advocate we need to do some detective work to uncover the reasons for their often bizarre behavior. Three reasons a dementia patient may refuse to take a bath.

Pain May Be The Problem

elderly lady with arthritis in her hands

An elderly person with dementia may have physical pain. Arthritis may act up especially in the early morning hours. A relaxing shower may sound good to soothe those tired and achy joints to you and me. But getting undressed, sitting on a hard shower chair and being cold may contribute to more pain.

Trying a different time of day may be helpful. Making sure that medication for any pain issues has had time to start working and adding a soft cushion to the shower chair may all help with the ritual.

Fear- Not Understanding What Is Happening

elderly lady holding her head

When someone is in the later stages of dementia, what seems routine and normal to you, may be foreign and frightening to a patient. The sound of the shower or the feel of it on frail skin could be a good reason to avoid this activity.

Try gentle techniques like using containers of water to rinse the patient rather than a shower beating down on them. If you do use a shower make sure the shower head has a very gentle stream coming from it. Sing. Music often touches the soul and many people sing in the shower. Bring music into this ritual to make it more comforting.


If you have not already established a daily routine, it is time to do so. Dementia patients often get agitated and confused. Routine helps establish a sense of balance in their life. It creates body memories. Even though their mind cannot tell you what the daily routine will be, their body will remember the routine and they will react accordingly. If bath time has been a struggle, you will need to charge what you have been doing to create a comfortable experience.

At Light Heart Memory Care we take the time to really get to know our residents. We learn what is important to them and what they like and do not like. That way we can tailor activities like bathing to each individual.

Pat Mack has been helping families make the right decisions to care for someone they love since 1997. Email Her Today for more information.

Give us a call today and come for a tour.


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